It’s already been three years since I first arrived to Suaq Balimbing. I spent six months there, following orangutans through the swamp rainforest for science. From dawn to dusk, chased by mosquitoes, constantly falling into invisible holes and disappearing waist deep into the swamp. But also joking with the lovely local assistants, having biscuits and coffee surrounded by pristine rainforest pulsating with life, and witnessing the intelligence and life stories of one of our closest relatives – the orangutans. It is the place that even today, three years later, my heart calls home. But it wasn’t always this way. The first few days were certainly the hardest. This is about the beginning of my jungle journey.

Journey into the wild
The Suaq Balimbing orangutan research station is located in the south of Aceh province on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh looks back at three dacades of civil war for independence from Indonesia. The conflict only ended in 2005, after the tsunami devastated the region. Sharia law prevails throughout Aceh. That is why us three female researchers had to dress appropriately when arriving in the village: knees, shoulders, elbows and head covered.

We traveled from Medan to South Aceh by overnight car. The next morning, we loaded our 150 kg of luggage and equipment into motorboats. And up we went, on a 2-hour boat ride past sunbathing monitor lizards, dazzling kingfishers and troops of macaques and langurs watching us from the treetops. The river connecting the village and the research station marks the border of the Gunung Leuser National Park. This border was more than evident: Large, liana-clad trees bending over the riverbank to our right, while to our left, the forest had been cleared or burnt down and oil palms had taken their place.

Our boats docked on the small wooden platform, the entrance to the research camp. We shyly set foot on the soft, muddy ground. Before anyone else, a big, black scorpion crossed our path and greeted us: Welcome to the jungle!

All beginnings are hard
The first day at camp was quite shocking to me. I regretted agreeing to this crazy 6-month adventure. My mosquito net wasn’t fitting and kept falling on my face. The bathroom consisted of a bucket shower with brownish, cold water and a squat toilet. The kitchen was dark, very rudimentary, and rice grains stuck to my bare soles. The house was teeming with ants and other creepy-crawlies, a mini-wasp nest was just in the making above my bed. As if that wasn’t enough, we’d have to scramble through the swamp forest every day in search of orangutans. Sometimes more than 12 hours a day! The things we do for science…

But on the second day, having had some rest and time to settle in, I could see the beauty as well. The sun was shining, monkeys were leaping between the trees, chickens cackling around the house. And it is the most beautiful place in the world to do laundry! Squatting on the wooden pier next to the slow-moving river, butterflies of all colors fluttering around the laundry buckets, attracted by the scent of the detergent. And everything around me was dominated by the ravishing, lush green jungle. What more do you want in life?

However, the next shock was awaiting on day three. We ventured into the forest for the first time, together with Fikar, a local research assistant. But difficulties already started with such simple things as moving through the swamp forest. There was a boardwalk, but in very bad condition. The further we went into the forest, the less we could see from what was left of the boardwalk, until at some point we were balancing on pieces of wood floating in the swamp. And naturally, swamp water is muddy. We could neither see how deep it was nor what was underneath. Multiple times, we disappeared into the swamp and had to be pulled out by Fikar.

After a while though, we had our first encounter with wild orangutans: Lisa and Lois, a mom with her infant. Our first orangutan follow began and we tried recording behavioral data, which is what we came here for, after all. But this is hard work! It was difficult enough to not to lose them. They are high up in the trees. Often, all we could see from ground-level was some orange fur peeking through the leaves. But we’re supposed to note their activity, at what height they are, what species of tree they are sitting in, take GPS points, make notes about social interactions… After 5:00 pm, they finally made their night nest and we could head back. Two hours walk. In the dark. In an unknown forest. With snakes and other animals. At least it wasn’t raining.

  • Chigusa Keller
  • : I am an ecologist and my biggest love is the tropical rainforest. I have first started blogging when I travelled the world the first time after highschool. It was mainly to let everyone at home see the world through my eyes. I continued blogging since then, whenever I was en route to some inspiring places.
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  • : adult_(19_and_over_as_of_31st_december_2019)
  • : Story was translated and adapted from this post: